Place of Discourse and Folklore of the African Diaspora

On being white and talking about racism. How to learn about Afro-Brazilian stories of resistance, through lenses free from the objectifying effects of the white gaze.

From Mirna Wabi-Sabi

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“To get rid of the curse, the community called for good spirits to take to the streets in the month before August to ward off the evil spirits and attract good ones, managing to save the community from the great tragedy of Death. Initiating thus the apparitions of the mandus and Caretas (grimaces) on the streets of Acupe on Sundays of July.” (Wiki)

Each Sunday of July, a small Brazilian town called Acupe hosts street theater folklore of the African Diaspora. People come from all over the world to witness this unique cultural manifestation, and to support the community’s effort to reclaim its history. Nego Fugido (the play’s title, which I’ll roughly translate as “runaway black guy”) represents the long overdue opportunity for Afro-Brazilians to tell their own stories of resistance, spirituality, and ancestry. This way, they combat invisibility and the twisted white gaze of recorded history and western anthropology.

This play is about enslaved Africans who ran away, then were chased and killed by their master. This master was trying to avoid bankruptcy by offering the lives of enslaved runaways to Ikú (an Orixá, a force of nature, Death itself in the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé), and planting a banana tree over each grave. Eventually, there are no more lives to be offered, and Ikú curses the whole town. Every year, good spirits must be sent out to chase away the bad ones and break the curse. Caretas, the masked children that roam the streets, symbolize the “insertion of blacks and their culture into Brazilian society” (Jamilson Oliveira). Ultimately, the enslaved are granted freedom, and the town manages to arrest and auction out the King. Today, the skirt made out of dried banana tree leaves worn by the performers holds immense spiritual power, symbolizing the sacrificed lives of their ancestors.

“The banana tree leaves themselves are used in Candomblé terreiros to scare away eguns (spirits). Every terreiro has a babá of the house, a good egun that prevents other eguns from disrupting celebrations and rituals.” (Jal Souza)

The story, which comes from oral tradition of a couple hundred years ago, is remembrance of colonial power dynamics, the brutality of the struggle for freedom, and the primordial strength of Ikú. Acupe is a Quilombola community at the “Bay of All Saints” (Bahia de Todos os Santos), a region with a long colonial history, and land with deep ancestral roots. The combination of lifelike reenactments, on the Land where the story took place hundreds of years ago, and the sacred ritual to rid the town of evil spirits makes for a breathtaking experience.

Unfortunately, the swarm of white photographers overpowers not only the audience, but also the performers. There is nothing inconspicuous or ordinary about those giant lenses being shoved at all angles and in all directions. These hybrids between tourists and professionals felt no shame in interrupting the performances to direct the actors into ideal poses. The drone hovering over us witnessed hostile arguments between photographers who fought over an ideal viewpoint, or between audience members that just couldn’t take those people’s entitlement over some cubic meters of aerial space.

Perhaps the the lack of a formal theater setting caused uncertainty over of what would constitute etiquette. Or perhaps they felt that this was a once in a life time opportunity to register that moment. What is certain is that the colonial gaze, and the historical form of racism being depicted in the play, was also manifested in its modern form, making people very anxious.

The population of Acupe is predominantly black. So, when there are white people there they are seen as outsiders. In fact, a lot of white people show up only to document this event, and the objectifying effects of the white gaze are palpable.

I believe there is a level of entitlement that comes through when white people act like being there and documenting the event is a favor they are doing for the community, as if their presence there is what gives the event value. There is absolutely no way that a photographer would interrupt an actor’s performance with “psssst! pssst!” while aggressively pointing to where the actor should move for a better shot at Shakespeare at the Park in NYC.

The “epidermalization of inferiority” may or may not come at play in response to this, but it is easy to imagine that many black people feel that the “social cost” of calling out white people’s insensitive behavior is too high, aside from having to deal with a likely outburst of white fragility. What I can say is that a hand full of black people in the audience were pushed too far and lashed out at arrogant gazers who were clueless and disrespectful.

I was taking pictures with my phone… the costumes were beautiful and designed to be photogenic. The problem isn’t visiting the town for the event, watching the performance and taking pictures. The problem is treating the Other as there to serve You.

One extremely insensitive thing you can do as an audience member is to treat those performers as objects, as if their purpose for being there was for you to make a fantastic photo. The parallels between history and modernity are distressing. The community is passing down a tradition to their children, honoring their ancestors on the very land where their blood seeped into the ground. Being able to witness it should be taken as a humbling learning experience.

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Place of Discourse

As someone who is not black or of the African Diaspora, I tell this story partially. I don’t, nor will I ever want to, speak for anyone. I speak about them, and about myself, because we exist in relation to each other, dialectically. My place of discourse is not, and doesn’t claim to be, impartial. That doesn’t mean I have no right to speak.

“[W]hite people cling to the notion of racial innocence, a form of weaponized denial that positions black people as the “havers” of race and the guardians of racial knowledge.” (Robin DiAngelo)

It’s my responsibility to address my white passing privilege, and to address how my own community might be reproducing classism and colorism. As white (passing) people, we must listen and learn (and read), but when we demand the unpaid emotional labor of racial education from Afro-descendants, we fall in the trap of reproducing the very thing we want to eradicate.

Support the community, don’t take from them. Learn without demanding labor. And attend when you’re invited. This is the etiquette we can establish.


Mirna Wabi-Sabi

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is co-editor of Gods&Radicals, and writes about decoloniality and anti-capitalism.


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This is America’s Enslaver Culture

It’s no surprise that, even though chattel slavery was formally abolished throughout the Americas over 100 years ago, enslaver culture is still very much alive.

From Mirna Wabi-Sabi

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There are about 30 million pets abandoned in the streets of Brazil. Cats in particular are treated as a plague, killed and tortured indiscriminately.

Helping take care of street cats has been my way of dealing with the occasional helplessness many of us activists feel. I can’t always stop an armed policeman from telling a Candomblé worshiper dressed in white to lay on the floor with hands on the head for no reason. I can’t always stop a pack of drunk men desperate to prove their masculinity to each other from violating a trans woman on the street. But one thing I can do is clean the eyes of motherless kitties so they can see for the first time.

This coping mechanism recently lost its effectiveness when the dynamic at the cat shelter revealed a serious political issue: Enslaver culture.

It’s no surprise, even though chattel slavery was formally abolished throughout the Americas over 100 years ago, that enslaver culture is still very much alive. One example of this is the donor/volunteer relationship.

When I go to the shelter, once a week, I clean, feed and give medicine to cats. I’m a light skinned Latina, with a job and a house, so I’m considered a volunteer. People with means in the group donate a little money to buy whatever is needed, and there is also lunch for whoever is working.

For years, one young homeless black man goes there everyday, twice a day, to clean, feed, medicate, and build little houses for the cats. He even monitors who is coming to abandon and who is coming to adopt. In my eyes, he is the boss of the operation. To the donors, however, he’s a lazy employee.

When I receive lunch, it’s a donation. When he receives lunch, it’s a salary.

One of the donors had an abandoned house, and decided to allow the homeless young man to stay there. This gesture turns out not to be as generous as it sounds. He has the responsibility to renovate and maintain the home (which is in poor condition), and he takes dozens of the most vulnerable cats home with him to care for overnight. Now that donors offer him food and shelter, they feel even more entitled to demand more labor, and the laborer is dependent while earning no wages.

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Land demarcation efforts by Quilombo Quingoma

It’s hard not to see the connection between this situation and our colonial history. Salvador, as the world’s capital of the African diaspora, is the land on which to witness, not the demise but, the development of colonialism and its deeply rooted white supremacy. Here, much of what is now urban residence used to be Quilombos.

Quilombos were communities formed by enslaved Africans who ran away. They were highly organized, militant, autonomous, and posed great threat to the Portuguese and Dutch authorities of the time. Today, there are much more than a million Quilombolas still fighting for their right to territory throughout the country.

Records show that there were compliant enslaved people who had stable relationships with their owners and did not want to join Quilombos. Some claim that abolishing slavery left the “freed” in worse conditions: “jobless”, homeless, and helpless (as some may say about my friend at the cat shelter). How reliable are these accounts? Not very, since those who kept records were the ones interested in using them for their advantage.

Arguments on the subject in literature in general have little empirical basis and tend to focus on the interplay of interests that would be associated with the diffusion of that interpretation. Several authors have considered the thesis of benignity a mere expression of the ideology of the ruling classes in the nineteenth century; its dissemination, especially abroad, would be part of the imperial government’s efforts to disseminate an amicable image of slavery and thereby oppose the abolitionist movement.

Flávio Rabelo Versiani (Economist, Brasilia) comparing enslavement in the U.S. and in Brazil.

On the other hand, in economic terms, not using “coercive force” (meaning, here we didn’t have as many lynchings) was a matter of efficiency, as was eventually abolishing slavery altogether. So, using words like “amicable” and “benign” to describe displacement, dehumanization, forced labor, murder and torture of black people is only considered empirical when described in economic terms. This, to me, is one good example of the rotten core of Academia.

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Today, some academics use this shaky empiricism to argue that the resistance against slavery was hypocritical. José de Souza Martins, one of Brazil’s most famous sociologists, claims there was slavery in the Quilombos. Dissociating the term “slavery” from “race” became his professional mission; white supremacy wasn’t the problem, according to him, rigidly stratified societies were.

His broad use of the term “slavery” can be compared to the broad use of the term “Nazi” when describing a feminist. José Martins says that because of the spread of “Islamism” in Africa, Africans enslaved themselves at a much higher rate than the Slave trade to the Americas, and that Islamic polygamy is also a form of slavery. The fact that he uses the term “Islamist” as synonymous with “Islamic” speaks volumes to the racial insensitivity of his rhetoric. But his use of biased (white) “empirical” evidence to delegitimize an organized resistance movement of the African Diaspora speaks even louder.

There is little denying that hierarchy existed in Quilombos, and that they used violence against enslaved people who chose to stay with their white masters. We have to understand that they were at war, and the decision to be compliant turned them into an enemy. So much so, that those compliant Africans were sent to the Quilombos as an army to defeat Quilombists. This practice hasn’t stopped, and is perpetuated by the military police force to this day.

Zumbi‘s opposition to Ganga Zumba, and the consequent shift of leadership at Quilombo dos Palmares, is symbolic of all anti-colonial resistance because it was a refusal to submit to Colonial authorities, and a declaration that no enslaved African would be free until all would be free. This fight is not over yet. There is still enslavement, displacement, incarceration, genocide, and struggle for land demarcation. We must acknowledge that, because not picking a side, being compliant, is in fact siding with white supremacist forces.


Mirna Wabi-Sabi

23844610_10155972276622372_5754996345436383112_n

is co-editor of Gods&Radicals, and writes about decoloniality and anti-capitalism.


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